Hey look, it’s a picture of the Yankees two best hitters!
One was suspended last season. The other was released last season. While there’s been plenty of attention on Alex Rodriguez, Chris Young has quietly led the Yankees in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage while seeming to earn himself more and more playing time.
“If you’re finding a way to help the team, normally you’ll find a way into the lineup,” Young said. “I said that in spring training. Wherever I’m at, if I’m bouncing around the outfield, it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s about trying to be productive and trying to get to the playoffs.”
The Yankees have seen quite a few lefties this season, which has opened some natural playing time for Young, but because Carlos Beltran was sick for a few days, and because Brett Gardner had that bruised wrist, Young has played a lot for a fourth outfielder. He’s made the most of it by crushing lefties (.500/.625/1.250 vLHP) and hitting for power against righties (.250/.286/.600 vRHP). He played ahead of Beltran against a lefty last night, and tonight he’s in there ahead of Gardner.
“Swinging so well, it’s hard to keep him out of the lineup,” Girardi said. “He’s going to play (against lefties). We need to find ways to get him in the lineup, and that’s what I’ve been doing. … I don’t know how much we’ll (play him against righties), but if a guy needs a day off, I’m not going to hesitate to put him in.”
Young’s primary responsibility is to hit lefties. That’s the job he was hired to do. But he also provides some outfield insurance as a guy who’s been a legitimate everyday guy in the past. At 31 years old, he’s not exactly an old player with no chance of being productive again. So far he’s thrived with inconsistent playing time this season.
“If I’m not playing, (I) make sure I go in the cage and try to keep my eye right, just try to stay ready,” Young said. “Even the games I don’t start, there’s a good chance I’m going to come into that game. That helps, as well. I think you always stay on your toes, never get too relaxed because you know that even if you’re off that day, you still have a good chance of going in.”
Released by the Mets last season, Young had a sudden resurgence with a terrific month of September with the Yankees. He hit .282/.354/.521 that month, and when opportunity for more playing time presented itself, Young took advantage and became a regular down the stretch.
A little more than two weeks into this season, it seems he’s trying to do the same thing all over again. Hard to keep his bat out of the lineup at this point, no matter who’s on the mound.
“It’s important to have positive people around you,” Young said. “For the fan base to take you in and give you a fair shot. They’ve shown me nothing but love. My teammates have shown me nothing but love. When you’re in a positive environment, positive results aren’t automatic, but they’re definitely a lot more reachable, I believe.”
• Temperature is supposed to get into the mid-to-low 30s tonight. It’s legitimately cold here in Detroit, and there have been snow flurries off and on throughout the day, including during Girardi’s pregame media session in the dugout. “I think you worry probably most about the grip on the baseball,” Girardi said. “The ball’s going to be slick tonight just because of the weather. It’s going to be difficult.”
• A slick ball isn’t great news for a starting pitcher like Adam Warren who leans on a four-pitch mix and really counts on his offspeed stuff, but that’s the way it goes. “(Nathan Eovaldi) seemed to find it last night so hopefully Adam can, too,” Girardi said. “You just have to be able to locate tonight. It might take you a few innings to find all your stuff, but keep searching.”
• Still planning to have Masahiro Tanaka pitch tomorrow on normal rest. It will be the first time this season he’s pitched with four days rest. “I thought he put it all together his last outing,” Girardi said. “He had all his pitches, so I feel good when he takes the mound.”
• For the third day in a row, the Yankees have not been able to take batting practice on the field because of the tarp. The Tigers have been in the same boat, but if you’re wondering why lineups have been posted to Twitter a little later than usual, it’s because the clubhouse has opened later without batting practice. The tarp is still on the field as I type this, but the game is expected to start on time.
• There’s a chance Alex Rodriguez will get the day off tomorrow. The Yankees are facing a right-handed starter and it’s a day game after a night game. Girardi said the decision will depend on how Rodriguez is feeling after tonight’s game. It sounded as if Girardi were leaning toward giving Rodriguez a day, but that’s just a hunch. Wouldn’t be especially surprised either way.
• As you’re probably well aware, Rodriguez is two home runs away from tying Willie Mays on the all-time list. Would be interesting to see him get one these next two days and go into the home stand one away. “This is a pretty big ballpark,” Girardi said. “He’s hit some balls pretty good here, but this ballpark plays big, so it’s hard to judge. … You’ve just got to relax and just go and be himself and not worry about it. Hopefully he’ll be able to do that. It’s easy to say it.”
• Girardi on Bernie Williams, who will (finally) officially retire on Friday: “Switch hitter in the middle of your lineup that had power from both sides, played excellent defense, ran the bases. He was a big part of our lineup. It was a time that you could put him in between O’Neill and Martinez and really broke it up. If you wanted to bring in the lefty, there was a good chance you were going to pay if you brought him in to face O’Neill. And Bernie just found ways to get big hits, found ways to get the job done. He was a great teammate. Everyone loved him. He sat in the corner a lot and played his music, and we all enjoyed listening to it. Just a great teammate.”
Associated Press photos
This time the tweak was a small one, just a minor change to keep his hand a little closer to his body as he begins his delivery. That’s what Nathan Eovaldi worked on leading into this start. Nothing overwhelming, just relatively easy fix, he said, to make his mechanics a little easier to repeat.
It wasn’t the kind of thing that single-handedly accounts for one of the best starts of Eovaldi’s career against one of the best lineups in the American League. He’s been building toward this for a while.
“That lets you know what his ceiling is,” Chris Young said. “If you can do that against the Tigers, you can pretty much do it against anybody.”
When the Yankees traded for Eovaldi this offseason, they talked about his potential to get better. He’d been a solid middle-of-the-rotation type in Miami, but his huge fastball while approaching just his 25th birthday suggested Eovaldi could be even better. In spring training he went to work on his offspeed pitches, tried to improve a relatively new splitter and worked on using his fastball up in the zone. He was good in his exhibition starts.
As the season started, Eovaldi’s his first two starts this season were solid. They were perfectly winable. But it wasn’t until tonight that Eovaldi actually got his first Yankees win by striking out four, walking one and allowing just one run while pitching into the eighth inning. On the road. Facing this lineup. Against a team that won 11 of its first 13 games this season.
“I was really pleased,” Eovaldi said. “It’s a great lineup. My slider, I had good depth to it and was able to keep the ball on the ground for the most part, and make pitches when I needed to. … It could be any team, whoever’s hot really, and when you can perform and give your team a good chance to win, that’s big.”
Best start of his career? Eovaldi said he’s had others that were good. Said he pitched well against the Braves last year. He’s pitched through the eighth inning a few times. This might not be the best of the best, but it’s an indication of what the Yankees would like to see. It’s a hint of what Eovaldi’s capable of doing.
“He’s got good stuff, No. 1,” manager Joe Girardi said. “No. 2, he’s young. This is not a guy that’s 29, 30, that’s been pitching a long time in the big leagues. It takes starting pitchers time to develop, and they learn a lot about themselves, and they add pitches. He does a lot of things right. You think about the fielding tonight, a big double play there. He holds runners. And with the quality stuff he has, I think he has a chance to be really successful.”
• Chris Young went 3-for-3, walked twice, hit his fourth home run and doubled just for good measure. He leads the Yankees in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. “It’s too early for me to start thinking about the season (as a whole), start thinking about stuff like that,” Young said. “It’s more just about having consistent at-bats, trying to come through when my card is pulled. I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible.”
• With David Price starting tomorrow, Girardi said he will definitely have Young back in the lineup for Game 3 of this series. At this point, it would be hard to bench him even against a right-hander. He’s been outstanding.
• Young is in a four-way tie for the team lead in home runs with Stephen Drew, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. Like Young, Drew also hit his fourth homer tonight. Half of Drew’s hits have been homers. He’s hitting just .190, but he has the fourth-most RBI on the team.
• Three double plays last night. Four of them tonight. “The double plays have been really helpful, keeping them from scoring a ton of runs,” Girardi said. “We know how explosive they are. We’ve got some real timely ones.”
• Interesting that Drew was at second for last night’s double plays and at short for tonight’s (he was involved in three of them tonight). “He seems to be doing it pretty well, but it’s got to be a little different bouncing back and forth a little bit,” Girardi said. “But with the injury to Brendan, we’ve been kind of forced to do this.”
• Eovaldi is still throwing his splitter, he just hasn’t used it very much lately. He said he’s been getting too much side-to-side movement on it and not the good, downward break that he wants. Eovaldi threw two splits tonight. He got Miguel Cabrera to fly out with it in the first inning and Victor Martinez fouled one off later in the game.
• Andrew Miller is five-for-five in save opportunities, but this one got a little dangerous with the bases loaded in the ninth. Miller walked the first two batters he faced, but it actually looked like he struck out each one. “I wasn’t missing by much,” Miller said. “I felt really good believe it not, despite the conditions. That’s probably the best the ball’s come out all year, and I think sometimes you just get a little too amped up. I didn’t feel I was missing my much.”
• First batter Miller faced was Nick Castellanos, and I’m pretty sure everyone in the building except first-base umpire Gerry Davis through Castellanos swung on a 1-2 fastball, but it was ruled a check swing. Next batter was Rajai Davis, and Brian McCann got crossed up on a 3-2 pitch that also looked pretty close to a strike, but it was called a ball to walk in a run. “If I don’t cross him up, I’m pretty sure that pitch that hits McCann in the knee is a strike,” Miller said. “I think everything that went wrong is pretty easily adjusted for the next time.”
• If you couldn’t tell, on that pitch that hit McCann, Miller thought the call was for a fastball, but McCann was expecting a slider. Can’t imagine 95 mph off the knee feels good, but McCann seemed fine postgame.
• Really nice eighth inning for Dellin Betances. MLB.com had his fastball up to 96 mph, which is a lot better than we were seeing in spring training. Girardi said that, after the insurance run in the top of the ninth, he never considered sending Betances out to start the bottom of the ninth.
• Final word to Girardi: “They’re tough. We’ve said it all along, they’ve got a very good lineup. But I thought our pitchers did a really great job tonight. I thought Evo was excellent. Used all his pitches. He has a half-an-hour inning where he sits down, comes out in the bottom of the seventh and I think it’s the hardest pitch he threw all night, to lead off that inning. I give him a lot of credit tonight because he sat a long time.”
Associated Press photos
Just a few days ago, Joe Girardi was talking about not making too much of a few at-bats. He was determined to give his veteran hitters time to right the ship. There would be no significant changes based on strong starts or slow starts.
In the past two days, though, we’ve seen some lineup tweaks involving Carlos Beltran. Last night, Beltran returned from illness to find himself dropped to fifth in the order so that Alex Rodriguez could remain in the No. 3 spot. Today, Beltran is on the bench so that red-hot Chris Young can get another start against a lefty (and so that two left-handed hitting outfielders can stay in the lineup).
Girardi made it clear that Beltran will play again tomorrow, but today he basically had a choice of playing Young ahead of Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury or Brett Gardner, and he chose to sit the switch-hitter Beltran.
“Just the way Chris has been playing and Gardy and Ells, too,” Girardi said. “Carlos will be back in there tomorrow. Just the way I went with it today.”
Two things at play here: Rodriguez and Young have basically been must-play guys, especially against left-handed pitchers, and Beltran has struggled to a .171/.222/.268 start to the season. Girardi has expressed confidence that Beltran will turn it around — and sitting him today is certainly not an indication that Beltran’s going to be a regular bench player going forward — but at this point, Ellsbury, Gardner and Young have been the Yankees three best outfielders.
Young, in particular, has been a potent source of power, kind of building on his strong September of a year ago.
“It’s been great,” Young said. “I love it here. This team received me well. The clubhouse is amazing. The coaching staff is amazing. I’ve gotten an opportunity here, so I’m really grateful for that.”
Girardi made a point of saying this isn’t a right-field platoon in which Beltran will always sit against lefties, but at this point, Young’s made it awfully hard to keep him out of the lineup.
“I think that’s what he’s done,” Girardi said. “He’s pushed himself into that position, and that’s why I chose to go the way I did today.”
A few quick updates from extended spring training:
• Jose Pirela went 1-for-3 while playing third base in an extended spring game yesterday. He was hit by a pitch in his first at-bat but stayed in the game. He will play seven innings at second base tomorrow.
• Ivan Nova threw two innings, 35 pitches, of live batting practice.
• Chris Capuano will throw two innings in an extended spring game tomorrow.
• Brendan Ryan took ground balls and went through batting practice.
• The Yankees defense was awful when the season started, but lately it’s been a definite strength. “I just think they were too good not to turn around,” Girardi said. “I just think what we saw is not something we ever expected and just kind of got off to a slow start defensively. It was hard to put your finger on it.”
• Meanwhile, the Yankees offense has been extremely home run heavy. They’ve hit a lot of homers, but they don’t have a single player batting .300 and only three everyday guys have an on-base percentage higher than .317. “It is kind of strange,” Girardi said. “We’ve produced a lot of our runs by the home run, and we knew we had power in our lineup. I don’t think it will always be like that. We scored five in Tampa the other day without hitting a home run. I’m not so sure we’ve done that too often this year. That’s the kind of club we are. We have some speed at the top obviously, but you look at 3 through 7, 3 through 8, they have the ability to hit a lot of home runs.”
• The Yankees face another lefty tomorrow (not just any lefty, David Price). Girardi said he expects Didi Gregorius to play that game (presumably with Stephen Drew on the bench), and he expects Beltran back in the lineup with either Gardner or Ellsbury on the bench.
• Chasen Shreve is back, but he’s back against a lineup that has a bunch of right-handed hitters. Essentially, it sounds like he’ll be the long man these next three days, leaving Esmil Rogers available for shorter outings in right-on-right situations. “The one thing about Chasen is he gives you multiple innings more than a Branden (Pinder) does,” Girardi said. “Against a lineup that has a lot of right-handers, it allows you to use Esmil a little bit differently.”
• Talked to Shreve for a little bit this afternoon. He said that the morning after the 19-inning game — when Shreve pitched 3.1 scoreless innings — Andrew Miller actually said something to him about the Yankees definitely needing to call up a fresh reliever for the next game. Shreve said he completely agreed, but it never once occurred to him that he’d be the one sent down. After he was told, Shreve said, he instantly realized that he was the most logical option. Funny, it takes most players a little bit of time before they’re able to put those sort of pieces together. Shreve was smiling about it today. Totally gets why it happened, but he’s obviously happy to be back.
• Girardi on last night’s anti-media rant by Reds manager Bryan Price: “We live in a day that strategy is very important to us, and people (in the media) are so good at what they do now that it’s hard to keep something like (not having a player) under wraps. For me, I try to understand that. And I understand that the media business is very competitive, but we don’t like to give out our strategy. That’s part of it. I’m sure if he had a chance to do it over again, he might have did it a little different. Sometimes we get upset and we say things that we wish we had said a little bit differently.”
Associated Press photos
Masahiro Tanaka’s first big league complete game shutout came on May 14 of last season. It was at Citi Field, and Chris Young was one of Tanaka’s eight strikeouts that day.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you’re at the plate,” Young explained tonight. “There’s really no way to have a legit approach against him. You can get anything in any count, and that makes him really tough.”
Manager Joe Girardi’s most common critique through Tanaka’s first two starts this season was that Tanaka had yet to pitch a game with all of his weapons. Couldn’t locate his fastball quite right. Didn’t quite have his breaking balls working. It’s the total package that makes Tanaka so effective, and he had not shown his full arsenal until tonight.
Seven innings. Two hits. No walks. Eight strikeouts. All on just 85 pitches, a start that surely would have gone longer had the Yankees not spent so much time scoring runs in the seventh that Tanaka had to throw to stay loose on the bench.
“I thought he had all his pitches tonight, which was the big difference,” Girardi said. “He located his fastball. He elevated it as well. He used his curveball, his slider and his split really effectively, and that’s the difference. When you have all your weapons you usually are going to go deeper into the game.”
Tanaka cruised tonight. At one point he struck out seven of 10 batters. He retired 15 in a row. He clearly had enough to go at least eight innings tonight, maybe even the full nine if the Yankees wanted to push his pitch count above 100. His fastball, according to the stadium gun, regularly hit 92 mph and topped out at 94. He got swings and misses with his split, but seemed just as capable of finishing off at-bats with his slider.
“He was better,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “The command of the fastball was better. I thought he had a better downhill plane on it, and threw some fastballs down and away to the spot to right handers very well. That means that he’s getting through pitches pretty well. I think it’s a real good step in the right direction.”
Brian McCann singled out Tanaka’s slider for having better tilt. Tanaka himself said he was most pleased with his fastball, and said the difference came down to better mechanics.
“He did whatever he wanted tonight with the baseball,” McCann said. “He (had) sink and cut. He put his curveball in there for a strike whenever he wanted to. … I feel like this is what he’s been doing since he got over here. I mean, I really do. There’s no questions in here about it. The guys that are in this clubhouse, that watch him prepare on a daily basis, that see him go about his business, (all believe) he’s ready to go.”
That’s what the Yankees have been saying since the end of spring training. But saying it is one thing. Seeing it is another.
Tonight they saw it.
“I think it’s really important for him to see when I have my stuff, I’m going to pitch extremely well,” Girardi said. “And that’s what he did tonight. … In life, you need to have some success or you get frustrated with yourself. I hadn’t noticed any (lack of confidence). His confidence has been fine. He’s been the same person to me, but we all want to have success.”
• Rothschild said the Yankees still haven’t decided whether Tanaka will take his next turn on five days or six days rest. Girardi said the Yankees definitely plan to have Tanaka pitch on five days rest at some point, they just aren’t sure whether it will happen this turn. “We’ll see how he comes in tomorrow,” Rothschild said. “And then we have to decide to go the fifth day or the sixth day.”
• Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Teixeira were each pulled from the game in the late innings, but both were strictly because the game was so lopsided and it was worth getting them off their feet a little earlier. No new injuries, Girardi said.
• Huge game for McCann who became the first Yankees player to have a triple this season. He’s currently the team leader in that category. I know because McCann asked a bunch of writers to look it up and make sure no other Yankee had a triple so far. Kept bragging — as a joke — about his blinding speed. McCann has four triples in his career. “When you’ve got speed, you don’t have stop signs,” he said.
• McCann is now 8-for-13 with two home runs, a double, a triple and six RBI in his career against Rays starter Jake Odorizzi. The rest of the Yankees had two singles against Odorizzi tonight. McCann went 3-for-3 against him. “With some people, the numbers stack up,” McCann said. “Sometimes it doesn’t. Tonight I was able to get some pitches up in the zone and not miss it.”
• As a result of his big night, McCann’s batting average jumped from .179 to .250. “I’ve been feeling good at the plate since Opening Day,” he said. “It’s early in the season. A couple of hits fall here and there and it’s a different story. I’ve been feeling good at the plate.”
• Aside from McCann’s triple, the other big hit of the night was Chris Young’s grand slam off Grant Balfour. A grand slam is great,” Young said. “But it’s not what’s in your mind when you’re at the plate, especially the way my at-bat started tonight. I had a couple of bad swings on sliders in the dirt, so I was just trying to grind, battle, try to work a walk, a base hit. He happened to leave one up on me.”
• Young’s was the Yankees’ second grand slam of the season following Stephen Drew’s, which came earlier in the week in Baltimore. It was Young’s third career grand slam. Young, Drew and Mark Teixeira are now tied for the second-most home runs on the team with three apiece.
• After the game, the Rays designated Balfour for assignment. Rough night.
• Brett Gardner made his first start since being hit by a pitch on Monday. He reached base three times and stole a base twice. He has three stolen bases this season, all in the past two days. This was Gardner’s first multi-steal game since May 30 of last year.
• Branden Pinder struck out the first batter he faced in the ninth for his first career strikeout. Pinder said yesterday that he had a lot of family flying to Tampa for this series, so I assume that explains the people going nuts in the stands after that strikeout. It was a rough inning from there — he walked two and had the bases loaded before finally ending it — but Pinder got through it without the Yankees having to bring in Chris Martin, who was getting loose.
• By the way, Pinder was called for a balk in the ninth inning. I didn’t see anything, and Girardi said he had no idea what happened to cause the balk call. “We’re still trying to figure it out,” Girardi said.
• Final word goes to Young: “The biggest thing for all of us today collectively, we were able to make the adjustment off chasing too many pitches and kind of take our walks and put ourselves in a position to have a big inning. I think the biggest thing for us was the walks. Granted, Mac had the big hit, I had a hit as well in a big situation, but the walks kind of put you in that situation. Sooner or later, it’ll catch up to you.”
Associated Press photos
Thought we were finished talking about Masahiro Tanaka’s velocity, health and performance two days after his disappointing Opening Day start? You must be new.
In today’s Daily News, John Harper wrote that the Yankees believe something has been lost in translation in Tanaka’s public comments about his velocity and approach. The widespread perception has been that Tanaka is backing away from velocity because of concerns about his elbow, but the Yankees say that’s not the case, at least not based on their internal discussions with their young ace. Harper wrote that the team planned a meeting with Tanaka to make sure there’s a mutual understanding.
So the decision to throw more sinkers and fewer four-seamers is not because of the elbow?
“From my conversations with him, it’s a strategic thing,” Girardi said. “He knows that his four-seamer got hit some last year, and that really comes down to location. I think the important thing for him is that, whichever one he’s locating better, it’s the one he uses that day for the most part. He is a guy that gets 90 percent of his outs on sliders and splits. The fastball is to kind of setup the slider and the split. He needs to locate. I mean, he got in bad counts the other day. He didn’t really pitch Toronto much different than he did the last time he beat them in June, but he made mistakes and that was the difference.”
The numbers support the idea that Tanaka’s four-seamer was perhaps his worst pitch last season, so there is a non-health motivation in throwing fewer four-seamers. But, of course, given the situation — a slightly torn elbow ligament for such a high-end young pitcher — everything is going to be examined over and over again. Any change is hard to dismiss under the circumstances. From Harper’s story:
Yankee people also say the panic over Tanaka’s velocity is overblown, that his fastball against the Blue Jays, both two-seam and four-seam, were within one mile per hour of the way he pitched last year.
Likewise they say the percentage of fastballs he threw — 26 of 82 pitches, if you count the two-seam sinkers and the four-seamers — wasn’t dramatically different from 2014 either.
“I see the way he’s throwing his split,” Girardi said this afternoon. “I see him playing long toss. I just don’t think, if he was hurt, he could do the things that he’s doing. But I think that’s always going to be in the back of everyone’s mind just because that’s the way it is.”
• Alex Rodriguez has good career numbers against Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey, but Girardi said he didn’t want to start moving players up and down the lineup after one game. “I’m not going to start changing the lineup already,” he said. “We’re only one day in. A lot of it, I think sometimes, is something that you look over. Sometimes you make some changes, sometimes you don’t, based upon the personnel that’s in there at the time. I thought we could go with the same lineup two days in a row, it’s something a little bit different than what we’ve done the past two years.”
• The lineup will change tomorrow, though. The Yankees face left-handed starters on Thursday and Friday, and Girardi said he plans to use both Chris Young and Gregorio Petit as everyday guys against lefties. They won’t necessary replace the same player each time, but they’ll play against lefties, giving the regulars a chance to sit. It’s a way to add some right-handed balance to this left-leaning lineup. “I would say I will probably do that, try to give guys a day off,” Girardi said. “Maybe one of the outfielders a day off against a lefty, and one of the infielders a day off against a lefty, yes.”
• Didi Gregorius is back in the lineup after being hit by pitch to the elbow late on Monday. “He said he’s fine,” Girardi said. “I’ll watch him take BP and let him go through BP, but he said he felt good so my expectation is that it won’t be an issue.”
• In his fourth season with the Yankees, but only his second year breaking camp with the team, Michael Pineda seems to be an even better pitcher than the Yankees expected when they got him. His health might be worse than expected, but his stuff is better. “He’s much different (than in 2012),” Girardi said. “The first Spring Training didn’t go so well. He ended up getting hurt, and he wasn’t where he needed to be physically. Now you look at him and the ball is coming out well. He’s a much different guy. … He had a pretty serious injury and he has bounced back. I think he grew up a lot through that. I think during that time too his mechanics improved dramatically. It really helped him.”
• Last time Pineda pitched on a cold night in April, he wound up ejected and suspended because of a massive glob of pine tar on his neck. Girardi actually laughed when asked about it today. “I’m sure we’ll have a lot of eyes on him tonight,” Girardi said. “I think he understands, yes. I hope.”
• As expected, there’s no set closer for tonight. “It’s the matchups (that will decide who pitches the ninth,” Girardi said. “It’s the order.”
Associated Press photos
The Yankees have one starting pitcher with a torn elbow ligament, another with a surgically repaired knee, and another who’s dealt with shoulder issues for three years now. Yet it’s the veteran No. 5 starter who hurt himself earlier this spring.
In the lineup, they have a right fielder coming back from elbow surgery, a first baseman who couldn’t stay on the field last season, and a designated hitter who’s approaching 40 and hasn’t played in more than a year. Yet it’s the reliable center fielder who spent the past week in the trainers’ room.
“I guess all I can tell is just how I feel each and every day,” Jacoby Ellsbury said this morning. “But until I swing a bat, until I throw, until I do really explosive stuff, that will be the real test. But it does feel better each and every day.”
Ellsbury has a mildly strained oblique. The injury was supposed to keep him out of the lineup a couple of days, but he’s now gone a week without baseball activities. Ellsbury remains confident he’ll play on Opening Day, and for now it seems to be more bump in the road than significant concern. The Yankees have to hope it stays that way, because Ellsbury might be their most dependable position player.
“If not the most important, one of the most important guys on our team and definitely in our lineup,” Alex Rodriguez said. “He is certainly one of the guys that I’m super excited about coming back. He’s kind of a rock star and he has a lot of skills. He reminds me of a very skilled point guard in baseball. He can do a lot of things very well, and I hated to play against him because he was so dangerous.”
While Ellsbury has a history of injuries, his two most significant were the product of collisions and not some chronic health problem. Just last spring he missed the last two weeks of Grapefruit League games with a calf injury, but he still opened the season with a strong month of April.
“Coming into the season I felt pretty good,” he said. “I got some at-bats across the street and everything. I felt pretty good. I felt like I was seeing the ball, tracking pitches. And I felt pretty good a couple of days ago in the games with that (before getting hurt). Hopefully I should get some at-bats before we break.”
The Yankees know they have some health and age concerns in their lineup, but Ellsbury’s not supposed to be the one having problems.
“He’s such a unique talent,” Rodriguez said. “You don’t see talent like that come around very often. … There’s a lot of things that I admire about his game and I look forward to hopefully driving him in this year.”
• The Yankees lost 7-6 this afternoon, but it’s hard to blame Chris Young. The Yankees fourth outfielder had a pair of home runs in the loss. The Yankees gave him another turn in center field today, though it seems more likely he’ll play some sort of platoon role in the corners. “The entire goal is just to be ready for whatever,” Young told MLB.com. “Be prepared for whatever situation is going to get thrown my way.”
• Young starter Bryan Mitchell was charged with two runs through 3.1 innings. Both runs scored after he left the game, but Mitchell allowed his share of base runners with four hits and three walks. His stuff is impressive, and the Yankees keep saying he’s still in the fifth-starter mix, but Mitchell also has a 7.36 ERA and 2.18 WHIP this spring. It’s only 7.1 innings total — hardly defines Mitchell as a pitcher — but in the short term, it suggests he’ll likely be on the outside looking in. “This is a young man with good stuff,” Joe Girardi said after the game. “It’s learning how to pound the strike zone with that good stuff and learning how to put guys away that is going to be a factor for him. I think this kid’s got a pretty high ceiling, I do. There’s stuff there.”
• Speaking of the fifth starter: Esmil Rogers gets the start tomorrow, and it sounds like Adam Warren might pitch on Thursday. Girardi said today that he’d like to have the fifth starter spot ironed out by the end of the week.
• Four relievers got in today’s game. Chasen Shreve allowed an RBI hit to a pitcher, Jose Ramirez — who’s already been sent down — struck out three but also was charged with a run, and Kyle Davies took the loss after allowing three runs in the seventh. The one pitching standout for the day was young Jacob Lindgren, who’s been terrific all spring. He’s flown remarkably under the radar, but he’s still around and still has terrific numbers.
• Brian McCann hit his second home run of the spring. He also threw out Bryce Harper trying to steal second on a pitch out. … John Ryan Murphy had two hits but is still hitting just .185 this spring. It was also a two-hit day for Rob Refsnyder (including a double). … As planned, Brendan Ryan got another turn at shortstop. He also got some at-bats as a designated hitter yesterday. Despite missing time with that back injury, Ryan still seems fairly secure in his spot on the Opening Day roster.
Associated Press photos
RHP Chase Whitley
Five days before the Yankees’ first spring workout, we’ll keep counting down the key decisions to make in spring training. We’ve already looked at picking a backup catcher, setting a lineup, figuring out Triple-A depth, rounding out the bullpen and choosing a fifth starter. Today we’ll look at a decision that’s a combination of individual evaluation and full roster analysis.
What’s the best way to setup the Yankees bench?
The bench is all about role players. It’s about having backups at every position, about having some speed and defense in the late innings, and about using match-up hitters when necessary. It’s not about simply choosing which young catcher should play once a week; it’s about truly maximizing every spot on a 25-man roster.
Assuming a pretty standard roster construction — 12 pitchers, 13 position players — the Yankees have four bench spots to work with. Here are the projected reserves, their projected roles, and a few alternative ways of approaching each spot.
1. Chris Young
Role: Right-handed fourth outfielder
Similar option: Tyler Austin
Alternative approach: Right-handed utility man
Clearly the Yankees re-signed Young to be on the Opening Day roster. He brings right-handed balance to the outfield, and a bounce-back season would make him a real bargain. Ramon Flores would standout as a homegrown alternative, but he’s a lefty, which limits his value in an outfield that already has two lefties in Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner (and could have another in Garrett Jones). If being a right-handed hitter is a key aspect of this role, the alternative way of approaching it might involve thinking beyond the outfield. Both Jose Pirela and Rob Refsnyder have outfield experience, meaning they could bring Young’s right-handed balance, but also provide some infield utility. Young has decent speed and potential for impact at-bats against lefties, which will probably be tough to pass up.
2. Garrett Jones
Role: Left-handed outfield and first base depth
Similar option: Ramon Flores
Alternative approach: Prioritize either the bat or the glove
A secondary piece of the Nathan Eovaldi trade, Jones has left-handed power that makes him a solid match-up hitter against certain right-handed pitchers. He also brings value because of his ability to backup a first base, right field and designated hitter, three spots where the Yankees have significant age, health and production concerns. Flores also hits left-handed and has some first base experience, but he doesn’t bring nearly the same amount of power. Austin could be a right-handed version of the same thing. To use this roster spot differently would be to prioritize one or the other: either the bat or the glove. Either give the spot to a true utility guy (someone like Pirela who adds more defensive flexibility than Jones) or give the spot to a pure hitter (someone like Kyle Roller, who barely plays a passable version of first base, but just might bring more offensive upside). Either of those alternatives seems unlikely. Jones has just enough flexibility and just enough platoon power to actually fit the roster pretty well.
3. Brendan Ryan
Role: Backup shortstop/infielder
Similar option: Nick Noonan
Alternative approach: Let Stephen Drew back up at shortstop
If Drew is strictly a second baseman, then Ryan stands out as the only experienced option as a backup shortstop. Minor league free agent Noonan is probably next in line — seems likely to play shortstop in Triple-A — largely because guys like Refsnyder and Pirela aren’t really shortstops (Pirela’s done it in the past, but not well enough to stick at the position). Thing is, the Yankees don’t have to think of Drew strictly as a second baseman. Even if Drew is playing second base regularly, he also serve as the No. 2 option at short (kind of like Brett Gardner plays left field, but is still the No. 2 option in center). By treating Drew as the backup shortstop, the Yankees could open Ryan’s roster spot for someone who’s a lesser defender but a better hitter. In that case, either Refsnyder or Pirela could be a strong fit. It’s worth noting that losing Ryan would cut into the Yankees shortstop depth should either Drew or Didi Gregorius get hurt. Basically, the Yankees would be an injury away from having either Noonan or Cito Culver on the big league roster.
4. John Ryan Murphy
Role: Backup catcher
Similar option: Austin Romine
Alternate approach: Catcher as designated hitter
Every team needs a backup catcher, so there’s really no way to approach this roster spot with any sort of radical change. One way or another, the Yankees need two catchers. The only way to look at it differently would be to use the backup catcher as a regular designated hitter. If, for example, Alex Rodriguez looks lost at the plate and Murphy looks like one of the best right-handed bats in spring training, perhaps the Yankees could regularly put both Murphy and Brian McCann in the lineup. It would essentially open a spot on the bench for Rodriguez or someone else, while also opening the possibility of losing the DH if the starting catcher can’t finish a game. Seems unlikely as an everyday approach. More likely, the Yankees will simply choose a backup catcher and use him as such.
Associated Press photo
Pinch hitting: Tyler Patterson • 02.13.15
Quick and to the point, today’s Pinch Hitter sent a one-line bio: “Tyler is a life-long Yankee fan and an attorney in Washington, D.C.” That’s Tyler Patterson in an incredibly small nutshell. Perhaps he kept the bio so short because he was saving so many words for his actual post.
As for his post, he calls it: “The 2015 Yankees and Elite Team Defense.”
Inspired by Ruth, Gehrig, and many, many others, the Yankees at their best are an offensive juggernaut. Not to mitigate the team’s past pitching accomplishments (indeed, some old-time Yankee pitchers are criminally underrated) but success for the Yankees has been predominantly associated with the organization’s offensive prowess over the years. Such is the case for the teams that the organization has fielded since 1995, the first year I, like many other millennials, began watching the team.
I challenge anyone to name me a Yankee club since the 1995 season that has been known for its defense (in a positive manner). I know I can’t do it. Not that the Yankees haven’t fielded stout defensive teams since 1995, but the point is that defense is just not what the Yankees are ever known for. And when you look past player reputations and at the numbers, it is not difficult to understand why.
For example, recently retired Yankees legend Derek Jeter is easily one of the greatest shortstops in MLB history and one of the greatest Yankees of all time. However, none of that was due to his defense. For his career, Jeter had a TZ of -129, a DRS of -159 and a UZR/150 of -7.1. If you do not know what any of these stats are, that’s fine. As you might guess, all those negatives indicate Jeter was not a strong fielder. This jives with the traditional eye-test as well, the jump-throws and Gold Glove awards aside.
The same can be said about many other Yankees since 1995 (Williams, Posada, Giambi, O’Neill, Soriano, Sheffield). None of these players was an especially good fielder, and the list goes on. Very few Yankees since 1995 were great (or in most cases, even average) fielders. In fact, from 1995 through the 2014 season, the Yankees ranked dead last in all of baseball with a Def rating of -440.8 (Def, as calculated by FanGraphs, is a combination of two important factors of defensive performance: value relative to positional average [fielding runs] and positional value relative to other positions [positional adjustment]). The next worst club, the Cubs, had a Def of -308.5.
Since 1995, the Yankees cumulatively have been far and away the worst defensive squad in all of baseball.
That being said, the Yankees have showed marked improvement in team defense in the past several seasons. For example, the Yankees’ Def in 2013 was 21.4 and in 2014, 10.8.
This trend should continue in 2015, a season in which the Yankees might easily field their best defensive team since 1995.
The Yankees have made a conscious effort to get younger and cheaper wherever they can, and in baseball’s current suppressed run environment, the Yankees have realized that it is easier to upgrade the roster defensively rather than offensively. That is not to say there is not offensive upside to some of the Yankees’ offseason acquisitions, but improved team defense has certainly been on the mind of the front office, especially during the last two offseasons.
Let us run through the 2014 squad position by position and compare it to the projected team for the upcoming season. It is clear that the 2015 squad projects to be fantastic defensively, perhaps the best defensive team since 1995.
McCann is the Yankees’ catcher for the foreseeable future after the team signed him to a five-year deal following the 2013 season. He saw the bulk of the work behind the plate in 2014 and did not disappoint, at least defensively. McCann is a world-class defender and one of the best defensive backstops in baseball. His Def of 11.5 in 2014 was exactly what the Yankees signed up for, as was his pitch-framing performance (11.4 Runs Above Average, good for 11th in MLB. This represents a “down” year for McCann, who is consistently top 10 in MLB every season in this category). Long story short, McCann is an elite defensive backstop, and he projects to continue to be so, as his 2015 projected Def of 8.8 illustrates.
Backing up McCann will presumably be Murphy, who anyone will tell you is an above average defender behind the plate. The Yankees have been emphasizing catcher defense for some time now, and with Murphy (and McCann for that matter) the Yankees continue the trend. It is not actually settled who will be the Yankee backup catcher, as Austin Romine will also be “competing” for the role in spring training, but my money is on Murphy with Romine being dealt or placed on waivers. Murphy is clearly the better player, both defensively and offensively.
Obviously, Teixeira will be the Yankees’ first baseman in 2015, at least until the obligatory injury. Unlike last year, the Yankees have a back-up first baseman on their roster in Jones, although his defensive abilities leave a lot to be desired. First base, like catcher, is a position where I do not put too much stock in advanced statistics because, at least in my experience, the stats do not measure up to the eye test. Teixeira is a perfect example of this. Teixeira has had a pretty consistent negative Def rating throughout his career, and last season was no different, as his -3.6 shows. His UZR/150, however, was 7.1 last season and has been consistently positive in his career. That jives more with my perception of Teixeira and my experience watching him pretty regularly since 2009, but it is also obvious confirmation bias.
Either way, I’m not the only one who will tell you Tex is at least an average defender at first, and probably slightly above average. I expect no different in 2015, so long as he can stay on the field (a BIG if in his age-35 season). If injured, the aforementioned Jones figures to man first base. He is projected for a -9.1 Def, which is not very good, and unlike Teixeira, the eye-test does not save Jones; he has never been thought of as a strong defender, and the stats back that up. Let’s hope Teixeira remains healthy. Or, if not, that Greg Bird is mauling in Trenton and gets a call. Unlikely, but I can dream.
Offensively, second base was a mess for the Yankees last season until they dealt for Martin Prado, who was fantastic in his 37 games for the Yankees (his true value was as trade bait, allowing the Yankees to obtain Jones and Nathan Eovaldi). Defensively, however, the myriad of players the Yankees played at second combined for a -1.9 Def, which is not awful but not great either. A carryover from last season, Drew, was signed to a no-risk, one-year, $5-million deal to hold second base down until Refsnyder is ready to permanently take over (or until the Yankees gain another year of team control by manipulating Refsnyder’s service time).
Drew’s calling card in his career has been his defense at short, which has always been excellent. There is no reason to think that, save for a minor adjustment period, he will not be able to excel at the less-demanding second base position. A legitimate reason why the Yankees may not, as of this moment, be comfortable opening the 2015 season with Refsnyder as their everyday second basemen is his defense. A converted outfielder, Refsnyder has taken to second base well, but there is certainly room for improvement. The scouting reports peg Refsnyder as an average defensive second baseman at best, but combined with Drew’s projected performance, as well as Brendan Ryan’s skill as the infield backup, the team’s second base defense should be at least as good as it was last year, and probably much better. Backing up either of these players will be Ryan, a world-class defensive infielder.
We have already discussed Jeter’s defensive shortcomings, and last season was no different as he compiled a -4.0 Def, a -12.5 UZR/150, and a -12 DRS. By any measure Jeter was a very, very bad fielder last season. His replacement this season will be Gregorius, who projects to compile a 4.3 Def, a huge improvement over 2014 Jeter.
Gregorius has a reputation as being a strong defender with excellent range and a cannon for an arm, and let’s hope we see that in 2015. Under team control for the next several seasons, the position is Gregorius’s to lose (at least until Jorge Mateo is ready to take over) and the Yankees will give him every opportunity to be their everyday shortstop for the foreseeable future. Having Chase Headley manning third base will also make his job much easier, allowing Gregorius to shade up the middle more so than he normally would.
The Yankees opened 2014 with Kelly Johnson as their starting third baseman, and the position was a mess until Headley was acquired before the trade deadline. Signed to a four-year deal this offseason (at a below market rate), Headley is the Yankees’ third basemen moving forward. From a defensive standpoint, the Yankees are set. In only 58 games with the team last year, Headley compiled a 12.4 Def and has been an absolute defensive stud throughout his career.
Combined with Gregorius, the defense on the left side of the infield will be among the best in baseball. Like second base, third base was not as bad defensively as I thought it was in 2014 (thanks mainly to Headley), but with Headley in pinstripes for an entire season, third-base defense will be an absolute strength for the 2015 squad. Headley is among the best defensive third baseman in all of baseball, and it will be fun watching him man the hot corner for the Yankees in 2015 and beyond.
Gardner was signed to a team-friendly four-year deal that begins this season, and barring a trade (which I do not think is out of the question) he will be the Yankees’ left fielder in 2015 and for the foreseeable future. Gardner is a superb defender in any outfield position, and left field is no different. It is important for the Yankees to man left field with a strong defender given the stadium’s dimensions, and Gardner handles it about as well as a player can. Because of this, he has more value to the Yankees than most other (if not all) teams.
Look for Gardner to continue his defensive excellence, giving the Yankees another above-average defended position. He also serves as a backup to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, further adding to Gardner’s value.
In the second year of a seven-year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season, Ellsbury will once again man center field. There is not much to say here, as Ellsbury has always been a very strong defensive center fielder, and 2015 projects to be no different.
This gives the Yankees yet another position fielded by an above-average defender.
Right field is the only position on the diamond I believe the Yankees will field below-average defenders in 2015. Last season, Beltran projected to be the everyday right fielder. Long gone are the years when Beltran was an elite defender in center field. Since 2009, Beltran has been a below-average fielder wherever he has played, mainly in right, and 2015 projects to be no different. Beltran suffered a myriad of injuries in 2014, and the Yankees were forced to play multiple players in right as a result. I expect the Yankees to DH Beltran quite a bit this season due to his age and the fact that he can still hit plenty when healthy. That will leave Young to get plenty of reps in right in 2015, especially against lefties as he is a career 116 wRC+ hitter against them.
Projection wise, Beltran sits at a -11.8 Def for 2015, while Young sits at a -2.2 Def. It is important to note that there is not a lot of room in right field in Yankee stadium, so bad defense in right for the Yankees is far less detrimental than it would be to, say, the Athletics or Padres. This is also a reason why I tend to shy away from advanced defensive statistics for Yankees’ right fielders, but I digress. The stats back up the eye tests for both Beltran and Young.
I am not going to analyze Ryan or Young any more than I already have because the backup infielder and fourth outfielder positions are very fluid on every team in baseball and it would not be a shock if Ryan and/or Young end the 2015 season off the active roster. That being said, the Yankees project to field an exceptional defensive squad in 2015 and, save for right field, will have at least an average fielder at every position.
In an era where run scoring is down significantly due mainly to an ever-expanding strike zone, it is far easier to upgrade pitching and defense. The Yankees have done a very, very good job upgrading team defense the past two offseasons, and it should be fun to watch.
Associated Press photos
I don’t have any hard statistics on this, but lefty specialists must be among the most common, highly specific role players on major league rosters. Not every team has one, but it’s not at all unusual to see at least one left-on-left guy in any given bullpen. It’s kind of a tiny role to play, but most teams find someone to do it. It’s kind of like carrying a pinch runner, or a powerful pinch hitter, or a pure defensive replacement on the bench: there’s an obvious benefit, it’s just a matter of finding room on the roster. In the case of lefty specialists, most teams seem to prioritize finding the room.
I point that out only because that’s one highly specific role the Yankees don’t necessarily have filled at this point. They have plenty of left-handed relievers, but not one who’s specifically assigned to those left-on-left situations (guys like Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson will surely face plenty of right-handers as well).
Do the Yankees have anyone to fill some of the other typical, highly specific roles next season?
The Yankees should get some difference-making speed out of Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, but those two are going to be lineup regulars, not pick-your-moment pinch runners. If the Yankees need some late-inning speed, their best bet is probably Chris Young. He’s had only 26 stolen bases the past three years combined, but he’s a better source of speed than John Ryan Murphy, Brendan Ryan or Garrett Jones. If Jose Pirela finds a spot on the roster, he can run a little bit, but he’s not an extreme base stealer.
Power pinch hitter
Every team has some pinch hit options on the bench, but there seems to be specific value in a guy who can come off the bench and provide some pop in a key situation. Sometimes it depends on the matchup — a right-handed or left-handed pitcher on the mound — and the Yankees could have two potential power bats on the bench in Young (against lefties) and Jones (against righties). Jones especially stands out as a pick-your-moment weapon if he’s able to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field. In a big RBI situation, he could be a better bet than Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew or Alex Rodriguez.
The Yankees most obvious defensive replacement is Ryan, but he’s also a defensive replacement for an infield that should be pretty good defensively even without him. Is Ryan a definite upgrade over Gregorius, Ryan, Chase Headley or Mark Teixeira? Really, Ryan’s more of defensive insurance, a guy who can provide a solid glove in case an infielder gets hurt. The real defensive replacement might be Young, who should be a right-field sub for Carlos Beltran in the late innings.
Not sure this really counts as a highly specific role these days. It’s pretty common for teams to have a player or two who only jumps into the starting lineup for specific matchups. The Yankees might have two of them in Young and Jones — one to play against lefties, one against righties — but that really depends on whether guys like Beltran and Rodriguez are productive (best-case scenario involves those two having no need for platoon protection). Instead, the Yankees best platoon situation might be in the middle of the infield, with either a platoon of Gregorius and Ryan at shortstop, or a platoon of Drew and Pirela at second (I would say Rob Refsnyder in that platoon, but surely if he’s on the team, it’s to play against more than just left-handed starters).
Not exactly a role anyone wants to play, but the fact is, basically every bullpen needs someone who’s capable of eating multiple innings when a game has turned lopsided one way or the other. That role is basically the way David Phelps broke into the big leagues in 2012. Adam Warren had that job early in 2013. Last year, the Yankees cycled through a several mopup guys who didn’t follow the Phelps/Warren path to something better. This year? Maybe Esmil Rogers could eat innings, or maybe there’s a spot for a guy like Chase Whitley or Bryan Mitchell to start the season as a mopup man with hopes of becoming something more substantial.
Aside from the roles that aren’t really for “role players” — ace, first baseman, closer, leadoff hitter, etc. — every player who’s in a specific role is probably hoping for something better and more significant. That’s certainly true for this one. A team’s sixth starter is usually either a long man in the bullpen (a mopup man) or starter in Triple-A. Right now, the Yankees next-in-line starter is pretty hard to define. We know the projected top five, but the sixth starter could be a safe bet for the bullpen (Warren or Rogers) or a safer bet for Triple-A (Whitley, Mitchell, Scott Baker). The sixth starter will have to define himself in spring training, and that role will surely shift through the course of the season. Ideally, the sixth starter the Yankees use this season will be Ivan Nova.
Associated Press photos